Ornaments of the Khampa Tibetans

Kham region woman wearing traditional costume and jewelry

I bet nowhere in the world you will see such an enormous variety and such a great number of ornaments as worn by the Khampa Tibetans of the Kham region of China during festivals. The Khampa Tibetans are mountain herders livings at high altitude on the eastern Tibetan plateau. They traditionally lived in tents and managed large herds of yaks, sheep and horses. They had to move every few months, so the Khampas have always needed easily transportable form of wealth. They couldn't buy houses, land or put their money in a bank, so for centuries they stored their wealth in the form of ornaments that have been passed down for generations.

Woman from Kham region of China wearing traditional costume and jewelry during festival

Woman from Kham region wearing traditional headdress and jewelry

These ornaments have always been important symbols of family heritage, wealth and social status. Even today, like their ancestors, Khampas continue to invest much of their wealth in the form of jewelry and ornaments, in part because these items increase in value over time, in part to preserve their old culture, and in part because it brings social prestige. The value of these ornaments is anywhere from several tens to hundreds of thousands of US dollars (no wonder there is a big military presence at such festivals).

Khampa Tibetan man wearing traditional costume and jewelry during festival

Their ornaments are very chunky, bold and colorful. Both women and men wear these ornaments on festival days. Typical woman's costume consists of a head gear featuring stones of amber, turquoise and coral, silver or gold ornaments - designs vary from county to county; necklaces made of coral, amber and ancient dzi beads - preferences yet again differ from county to county; belts studded with ornaments made of gold, silver or copper inlaid with ivory, gemstones and coral; bracelets made of animal horn, gold or silver; and big gold rings set with coral and dzi beads. In addition they display an astounding array of hairpins, earrings, amulet boxes, silver purses and waist knives.

Khampa Tibetan woman wearing traditional headdress and jewelry

The whole complect takes no less than two hours to put on (with the help of family members) and is incredibly heavy, can weigh as much as 30 kg.

Khampa Tibetan man wearing numerous strings of beads and other ornaments during festival

Men also wear many ornaments: heavy leather belts decorated with silver or gold plaques; large and small amulet boxes, silver purses, strings of beads, rings, bracelets and sometime head gears as well. They often carry old-fashioned muskets or long swords.

These breathtaking costumes are only worn during important festivals a couple of times a year.

All the photos courtesy Better World 2010

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  1. I must admit there ornaments are like nothing I have seen before. They do look heavy and I'm not surprised they can weight up to 70 kg! It is also not surprising they only wear them during the festivals because they're obviously not very practical. However, they are so unique, bold and beautiful that they are simply breath-taking!

    All the people that wear them seem very proud to do so and it is wonderful they preserve their tradition and heritage in this way. True some may want to show their wealth in this way, but still it is so much more rewarding to see such traditional pieces worn that somebody with a rolex. I think it is wonderful that they have such festivals to show these amazing pieces...and I think majority of these people really feel connection with their tradition and family in this way.

  2. Goodness me, and I thought I wore big pieces of jewellery! Takes "Go big or go home" to a new level! x

  3. I am impressed,never have I seen so much jewelery worn at once.I'm also proud of human diversity and imagination. It's world heritage.

  4. They are worth that much?!?! Good gracious! What a brilliant method of storing your wealth. Of course, I often forget and leave hats when I am out so I would be broke so quickly :) Amazing pictures and so interesting. xoxo

    All Things Bright and Lovely

  5. Wow, the celebratory dress of these people is breathtaking. And yes, it looks very heavy, but I bet they feel so great it's definitely worth the effort. I like how they found a practical and beautiful way of keeping their wealth.

  6. Extraordinary beads going from generation to generation. Great post, thank you!

  7. These really are big, bold, dress to impress pieces, aren't they? They certainly make a statement! xxx

  8. Very interesting post. I have never thought about the reason for those huge pieces of jewelry!!
    Great photos...